Exploring the foods of Iceland
An interview with food writer and cookbook author Jody Eddy
Nordic food has caught on internationally since the advent of New Nordic cuisine in the early 2000s, and a breathtaking, award-winning cookbook has specifically illuminated the foods of Iceland. North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland profiles the traditional producers of Iceland. Author Jody Eddy collaborated with celebrated chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, who is owner of the amazing restaurant Dill in Reykjavík and one of the leaders in contemporary Nordic cuisine. The book, which was published in 2014, won the 2015 IACP Judge’s Choice Award and features a foreword by Rene Redzepi, chef-owner of the two Michelin star, world-renowned restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark.
I met Eddy when we were both in culinary school at the Institute for Culinary Education in NYC in 2005. We had a lot in common; we were both tall, career changers in our early 30s, slightly out of our element, and we had an immediate connection. We quickly learned that we were both incredibly passionate about food and wanted to become food writers. That was the beginning of a long, rich, and rewarding friendship. I’m amazed at what she has achieved since I first met her over a decade ago, particularly with her work spotlighting the food of Iceland, and wanted to share her stories and perspectives with The Norwegian American.
Sunny Gandara: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and how you got started as a food writer.
Jody Eddy: I was a career changer, like so many people are in the food industry. I went to culinary school and worked as a chef for about three years and quickly realized that that lifestyle can be very taxing. I have an English degree, so I thought I would learn how to merge my literary background and my love for writing with my food background. I went from working in kitchens to being the editor at Art Culinaire Magazine, a magazine geared primarily towards professional chefs, and from there I wrote a cookbook profiling staff meals of restaurants around the world. When I left Art Culinaire, I became a freelance food journalist and cookbook author. I think the best thing about working in the food world for me is that my career has so much flexibility and there are so many different options.
SG: That’s fantastic. I’m always so impressed with what you’ve manage to achieve, and I never get bored reading about you and learning about the next exciting adventure you are embarking on. One of the really interesting things about you is that I believe you have some percentage of Norwegian heritage in you, am I correct?
JE: I do! I am actually a quarter Norwegian, and being from Minnesota I grew up eating a lot of Scandinavian dishes that I still count as some of my favorites.
SG: So tell us, how did you get the idea and inspiration about writing a cookbook that focuses on the foods of Iceland?
JE: I went to Iceland for the very first time at the worst time that I possibly could: two weeks after the country’s economic collapse. I was there with Art Culinaire profiling seven Icelandic chefs. It was a really dismal time—restaurants were closing everywhere, and Icelandic people weren’t really appreciating their own food products and traditions at that point. Actually there was only one restaurant that was still open, called Dill, which happened to be the restaurant of the chef that I ended up working with on my book, Gunnar Gíslason. Gunnar had just opened his restaurant where he focused on Icelandic ingredients, but he had lost his investors as a result of the bad economic times.
I was so inspired by what Gunnar was doing; he really powered on even though everything was shutting down around him. He couldn’t even afford his own staff and basically worked 24/7 with his business partner to keep his restaurant afloat. His food producers believed in him so much and in the work he was doing that they gave him free product, some up to a year, just knowing that eventually he’d pay them back. His dedication to preserving the food traditions of his country, when sometimes he was the only chef serving those ingredients, was so inspiring to me.
I continued to return to Iceland after that—I’ve actually been there 50 times (yes, five zero!)—and every time I go, it has been really incredible to see the producers that we started working with years ago thriving now, the same ones who were struggling so much in the beginning. Most of them can’t keep up with business. Much of this is because of Gunnar and his promotion of Icelandic food. What he was doing was really reminding them of how incredible their own traditions and food products are. So many chefs are now following suit as a result.
For instance, when I first started going to Iceland, Gunnar was the only one serving blue mussels—blue mussels are incredible in Iceland. No one else was eating blue mussels, and now every food menu there has blue mussels on them. When I talked with the producer, he told me: “Gunnar used to be my only customer. I used to go out on the ocean for two miles for one kilo of blue mussels for Gunnar.”
And now he can’t keep up. They are serving his products everywhere in Europe: at Noma in Denmark, in Spain, etc. And it’s all because of Gunnar.
SG: I just love this story. I’m curious to know: what was your experience like tasting Icelandic food for the first time?
JE: Well, there are preserved products that everyone brings up, like rotten shark, which is called hakarl, smoked puffin, and sheep testicles. To me what they represent is the perseverance and the resilience of the Icelandic people, because they had to create these foods to survive. But I think there is a real misunderstanding of what true Icelandic food is and what people eat every day. You don’t find pesticides and hormones in Iceland. They don’t have Monsanto. Everything is free range, their waters and environment are pristine, and they use geothermal greenhouses to grow all their vegetables.
Going out into the Icelandic countryside with Gunnar is so amazing. He doesn’t forage to be trendy, he just always forages. So the entire landscape becomes a salad; it’s fantastic. It’s a very pure, clean food. I think what Gunnar is doing is making food very flavorful. He uses true pickling and preservation techniques that not only make it incredibly flavorful but is very healthy as well.
SG: Tell us more about this fermented shark that everyone talks about when speaking of Icelandic cuisine. Can you tell us a little bit about it and the process of making this dish?
JE: Sure. The funny thing is, Gunnar will not eat fermented shark. We visited our shark producer three times, and I was always the only one who had to eat it, because he simply refuses to eat it!
You can find it in every grocery store. It’s cut up in little cubes but people eat it more as a connection to the past, as opposed to for their own enjoyment. It’s such a weird process. Shark is the only animal that doesn’t urinate, so what they do is they bury the shark in the ground, then press it down with weights to try to get as much uric acid out of their bodies as they can. Once it’s compressed and has been in the ground for six months, they cut them up into chunks and hang it to dry by the ocean for another several months. It’s one of the oldest traditions in Iceland. As much as I want to say “oh, it’s not so bad!” I have to admit it smells like a cat litter box with a taste like a strong Stilton cheese.
The shark producer we visited is in his 80s, and he swears by shark oil and he eats a shark sandwich every day. His skin is like that of a 50-year-old man. So I have to think, “can I argue with him when he looks 50 at the age of 80?” [laughing] but I’m still not going to follow suit.
SG: We have something similar in Norway called rakfisk. It’s a fish that we bury and hang to dry as well, and like in Iceland, most modern day people in Norway won’t eat it, but it’s a connection to our past and our tradition. We also have sheep heads like they do in Iceland and tørrfisk, which is similar to hardfiskur. With all this, do you find that eating rotten shark is becoming trendy again or will most people not eat it?
JE: Well, Iceland has something called thorablatt—it’s a celebration of the old preserved foods and takes place every February, not on a specific date, but pretty much goes on for the whole month. It takes place in country homes all throughout the country where people bring in their preserved foods and they eat and feast on all these crazy preserved products. So I’ve noticed since I started going to Reykjavík especially (I travel throughout the entire country), that there used to be just one or two restaurants highlighting these products in February, but now it seems like every restaurant is serving these foods. So I think that is a testament to people thinking that if they don’t do this, it’s all going to disappear.
SG: Given all your experience with Icelandic cuisine, what is one dish you would recommend people try if they visit Iceland?
JE: Certainly maybe ingredient wise I would recommend skyr; you might have something similar in Norway. It’s a thick, creamy yogurt-like product that tastes somewhere between Greek yogurt and crème fraîche. Icelanders consume more dairy product than any other population on earth. Any of the dairy products you find on Iceland, like the butter, the skyr, and the cheeses, I would highly recommend trying. There was hardly any cheese production in Iceland when I first started going there, and now there are all these fabulous artisan cheeses that are incredible. Icelandic lamb is amazing and is always free range. Arctic Char is really fantastic—again, from pristine waters.
SG: That makes sense. What would you say is a prevalent food trend among young Icelanders today? Are they preserving the old traditions or are they moving towards a more standard American diet?
JE: Thankfully there are not a lot of fast food chains in Iceland, which is such a relief. When Dunkin Donuts opened there last year, there were huge protests outside the front door. They don’t want this to impose upon their traditions. They are not necessarily eating the preserved products, but I think the average household is eating lamb, salmon, arctic char, and other ingredients their ancestors have been eating. They cook at home a lot, so I think the country is a little behind the times in that people still appreciate cooking and are not going to a Jack in the Box every night, like a lot of Americans do. And I think that is very positive and actually forward thinking. In my conversations with people from Iceland, I’ve noticed they observe the world, so I think they are watching what has happened in the United States with McDonalds on every block, and they see what it has done to American people and American culture.
SG: That sort of goes into my next question. What in your experience is the biggest difference between Nordic and North American cuisine?
JE: When I eat anything in Iceland that is Icelandic, I don’t have to worry that it is GMO, or full of hormones and pesticides. I know it’s pristine, and I know that it was watered by geothermal or glacial water. I know that the electricity used in the greenhouses are geo electric. Honestly, I am not sure if it’s psychological or not, but whenever I am in Iceland I feel cleaner, more energetic. I feel brighter and I think a lot of it is attributed not just to the food but to the bathing culture. It’s not just something they do as a touristy thing or once in a while, but a lot of people do this every single week. Just drinking the water there, you are actually drinking glacier water.
To illustrate; Gunnar ruined water for me in the United States. When we were in Asheville, N.C., and we were drinking water, he said “isn’t it horrible that you can taste that chlorine that the water was treated with?” And I tasted again and went “yes, I can taste it!”
SG: Yes, that’s the first thing I tasted too when I first moved to the United States, the chlorine in the water! We are definitely spoiled in Scandinavia! Have you had any experience with Norwegian food?
JE: I love brunost! We were at the Oxford Food Symposium in England one year, and Norway hosted one of the dinners we had there, with all Norwegian food. It was incredible, and the cheese really resonated with me, especially the gjetost.
SG: Knowing that you have a little bit of experience with Norwegian food, can you see a similarity between Norwegian and Icelandic cuisine?
JE: I think the connection between having pristine products and knowing more about the origins of food and where it comes from. Because in America we never truly know where our food comes from. In Norway and Iceland, it’s easier to trace, which is reassuring. The preservation tradition as well, perhaps while you are not preserving the same things, the practice and mentality of preservation is important, and I see parallels there for sure. And the brightness of the food, which I think comes from the vinegars and fermentation they use; I see a similarity there too.
SG: Yes, I one hundred percent agree with you there. Norway was a very poor country as well, so preservation became an important and vital technique for keeping and storing food.
I would like to know, what is the next project you are working on? Or should I say projects, because I know you always have more than one in the works!
SG: Gunnar and I are working on a second cookbook together, which I can’t talk about too much just yet because we are just in the beginning phases of getting it going.
I’m working with a chef in Turkey. Her name is Semsa Denizsel and she is referred to as the Alice Waters of Istanbul. She is an amazing chef, so we’re beginning a book together right now as well. Then I have a book coming out in October by Ten Speed on Cuba.
Additionally, I have just had a book come out in Ireland, which is why I was living over there the past few years. It’s similar to what I was doing with Gunnar. I spent two years profiling and visiting traditional food producers along the west coast of Ireland. The book is called The Wild Atlantic Way and came out earlier this year. It’s being distributed in Ireland and the UK now, but I’m not sure if it will come out in the U.S.
I am also the organizer of this conference in the U.S. called “Roots” at the Chef’s Garden in Ohio in September, and then I’m actually planning a food festival and conference in New Dehli, India.
Yes, it’s a lot. But as passion-based freelancers, we tend to commit to so many things because we just love what we do. And yes, it can get crazy, but then again it’s so rewarding to be working around creative people and food!
Jody Eddy is currently at work on several books, including a second cookbook with Gunnar Gíslason. She is also the organizer of the “Roots” conference at the Chef’s Garden in Ohio this month. You can follow along with her projects at jodyeddy.com, and you can read more about Dill in Iceland online at dillrestaurant.is/en.
Sunny Gandara has over 15 years experience in marketing and PR, both in the music and beverage industry. In 2008 she founded her own company, Fork and Glass, a food and wine event and consulting company, located in the Hudson Valley of New York. She now focuses on education, giving seminars and classes to private and corporate groups. Sunny, a native of Norway, is a professionally trained cook and holds a diploma in Wines & Spirits from the WSET. You can find her on Facebook (forkandglass) or on her blog, arcticgrub.com.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.